I began my love/hate relationship with the Roman Empire when I declared a Classics major at the age of nineteen, which was…um…decades ago. As anyone whose feet have strolled on a Roman road in France, or watched one hilarious scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” (“What have the Romans ever done for us?”), the reasons to admire the technical achievements of the empire are many, from ports to aqueducts, from roads to the famous fish sauce garum, which became a sign of fashionable Romanitas on tables throughout the empire. The accomplishments of Augustus are real and impressive. While the quotation found in Suetonius, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” may be apocryphal, it rather accurately depicts the changes in Rome under Augustus’ leadership. His accomplishments were not all military; as he says in his Res Gestae, a copy of which anyone can read inscribed on the side of the Richard Meier building housing the Ara Pacis in Rome, “I rebuilt eight-two temples of the gods in the city by the authority of the senate” and “when the taxes fell short, I gave out contributions of grain and money from my granary and patrimony, sometimes to 100,000 men, sometimes to many more.” With every empire, how the benefits are provided is always the problem. Augustus the highest benefactor was called Son of God, Lord, Savior of the World, and Redeemer, and everyone knew this because they saw these titles symbolized in the great building projects and literally expressed on inscriptions, coins, statues, altars, cups, and so on. He had at his service a fleet of “Mad Men” who knew how to get the message across.
Everyone knew it, but not everyone believed it. Many Jews in particular knew that the covenant of justice, mercy and love with the God of Israel could not be reconciled with the imperial covenant. Many Jews, for example, saw that there was a choice to be made regarding to which covenant we belong. The Roman covenant promised peace (at the price of submission) from the top down and in large part through violence, intimidation, bribery and a kind of “soft power” that tried to lure people into believing that Romanitas was the most desirable of identities. Those Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth should be called Son of God, Lord, Savior of the World, and Redeemer actively, and peacefully, denied that Augustus and emperors after him played those roles and thereby enacted a kind of treason. This near-constant critique of and contempt for empire is often missed by readers of the New Testament. Although that collection of books is shot through with this non-violent opposition, perhaps it is most easily recognized in the book of Revelation. John of Patmos employed both biblical and imperial symbolism to broadcast that the oh-so-attractive luxury items catalogued in Revelation 18:12-13 carry too high a price: that of human lives (18:13).
Our own list of luxury goods is long; we might substitute clothes, coffee and — personal gasp — chocolate, for myrrh, incense, and frankincense in that list. The cost, however, to our planet, to our shared humanity, and thus to our souls, is too high. Since absolute personal refusal to participate in the global economic system is nearly impossible at this point in our increasingly small world (as well as being of questionable consequence in such a vast system), the witness of our tradition holds our feet to the fire to work for the justice proclaimed by those who spoke in our Scriptures for the God of Israel and to pray for ourselves, the powerful of human history, as Pope Francis has in Laudato Sí:
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College.